The Books Interview: Etgar Keret

You say that writing is "making something out of something". What do you mean?
When I started writing, I didn't know anybody who wrote. I came from a very suburban town. When I later met other writers, I realised that most people write differently. They come up with an idea and they do some sort of construction [on it]. With me, writing is very much a process of letting go; it's like a trust fall. I fall backwards, hoping the story will catch me. When I write a story, I have no idea what I'm doing. All I know is that I want to share something with my readers. The whole idea of writing is this place where you lose control, where you're irresponsible - it's a very liberating place.

There is a careful rhythm to your stories. Does that guide you?
In translation, it's trickier - but, for me, when I write a story, because I don't know where a story is going to take me, the backbone of the story is always the tone, the rhythm. Writing a story is kind of like surfing, as opposed to the novel, where you use a GPS to get somewhere. With surfing, you kind of jump. I once had a story translated into English and it didn't feel right. I said to the translator: "You should ignore the text. You just have to keep with the rhythm and the flow."

You've said you would never write a New Yorker-style story. In what sense?
For me, it's a question of hierarchy. The moment that form and craftsmanship are at the centre, it means that the content or story or the passion to tell it comes second. A story comes from the passion to tell it. When I talk to young writers, I always say: "First, don't think about the story you think people want to hear - think of the story you want to tell and the rest will come out of that."

Your stories play with reality. Does writing allow you to do things you can't do in life?
For me, there is almost no ontological difference between doing something and writing about it. Generally, all my life, I have had strong friction with life - I was a problematic soldier, I was kicked out of the army, I was in fights. There was something about writing that was a way of experimenting with this emotion. My wife told that in my last collection there were so many stories about husbands cheating on their wives and I said: "Would you prefer me to write about it or cheat on you?" There is something about it that is liberating, because it's not harmful. When I was young, before
I started writing, I used to stutter. I wanted to say something but at the same time I knew it was inappropriate. There was something in writing that was legitimising those things, because suddenly they were in a story.

Characters often lose touch with the world in your stories. Is this partly your own struggle?
I have a very difficult time living. Things are never simple for me. If you ask me what the easiest thing for me to do in life is - easier than taking a piss - then I would say that probably it's playing with my son and writing stories. These are the two easiest things I know. I wish all of life was as easy as them. The thing that makes them easy is that you do stuff in a space that accepts it. There are no consequences - I can do anything. Most of the time, I try to stay out of trouble, I try to keep myself together, but it's on the surface.

Do you seek to destabilise some of the stories that Israel tells about itself?
In Israel, the role of the writer is dictated by the language in which you write. Writers see themselves as cultural prophets. I think that this role was needed because people felt very lost and confused, living in a country that is unlike any other. The thing about Israel is that it's a country based on the novel. It's almost like a Harry Potter movie. The last thing that people want is for you to go and deconstruct the already broken world. What I've written is completely outside the Israeli tradition and I've also written in a colloquial language. It's not about destabilising the world around us but about admitting that it's not as stable as it looks.

Your stories often deal with suicide. Why do you keep returning to the subject?
It's a very strong metaphor when you talk about suicide. You have to acknowledge that your life is a choice. When my best friend shot himself and died in my arms, I thought I could take his gun and do this. But I don't - I choose life. I write a lot about suicide but I am a very pro-life sort of writer.

Etgar Keret's latest book, "Suddenly, a Knock On the Door", is published by Chatto & Windus (£12.99)

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism